Think. Discuss. Act. Troubled Youth

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The Compass School

Compass School, a Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts day treatment program.
(Download this program as a PDF)


The Compass Organization provides counseling, outreach and tracking, violence prevention, enrichment, parenting skills, and peer support to youth ages six to twenty-one. A day treatment program, one of the program’s primary goals is violence prevention. This general focus is evidenced by type fo students who attend the Compass School.

The students who attend the Compass School have been released from Boston Public Schools because of unacceptable behavior and violence. As Shelley Johannesen, a case worker, explains, they are the “kickers and screamers-the violent kids.” The students generally come from urban Boston neighborhoods. About one-tenth of the students have a mental illness, and most of them have post-traumatic stress disorder. They struggle in school, and are usually chronically socially immature.

Johannesen believes that these kids are the pawns of many evils. Often they live in abusive or addicted families. This type of upbringing is revealed in the behavior of Compass students: Johannesen mentioned one abused child who, while holding and playing with his puppy, killed it by breaking its neck.

Program Methods

To help these students, the Compass School program offers a behavior management system and encourages its students to identify and discuss their emotions. The Compass School program also wants to help students control their feelings, and according to Johannesen, “Consistency is key.” Accordingly, the practical philosophy of the Compass School is fifty percent education and fifty percent behavior management.

To facilitate behavior management, they employ a fairly structured discipline system. If the student is causing a problem, he or she is first sent to the “time out chair” in the back of the room or into the hallway (depending upon age and seriousness of offense). (This practice is done primarily with the kindergartners.) If a student is sent to the hallway, a case worker is ready to handle their discipline and classwork. The next level of discipline and punishment occurs in the “time out room”: younger students spend five minutes in this separate room and write sentences (i.e., “I will not cheat.”) many times; older students have a longer time out period and they must write one-page essays. The next level of discipline includes physical restraint, until a student calms down. The last resort calls in the B.E.S.T. Team. The B.E.S.T. Team intervenes with unsafe kids who may need to be hospitalized. Every attempt is made to peacefully resolve the situation; B.E.S.T. is only used in extreme situations. On average there are approximately 15 “time outs” daily.

The work is admittedly difficult, but an excellent staff provide each other support. Consistency and communication with parents or guardians are key to a Compass student’s success. Everyday Johannessen says that she has to “look in the mirror and ask, ‘What’s this kid’s reality and how am I part of it?’ ” Sadly, in her opinion, kids’ problems seem to be getting bigger and looming over them at younger ages. Additionally, Johannessen says that all of these kids know that “they are bad” because they have been labeled as such. Beyond that, the saddest thing for Johannessen is that for the Compass students, this school and their tragic lives are their only realities; they are missing out on infinite opportunities for joy and growth in life. Yet, amidst the challenges, Johannessen continues to find hope in a lot of the kids, and this gives her the strength to continue.


  1. It is essential that young people-even the most difficult and needy-have individuals in their life who care and nurture hope for them.
  2. Troubled youth require abundant patience, correction, and grace. Those interested in working with such young people must be prepared for the realities.
  3. Generally, the older a student is upon entering “the system,” the less likely he or she will turn his or her life around. Intervention with at-risk youth is probably most effective before a child is of school age. It is important to maintain an idealistic perspective, but seek to rejoice in the tiniest of achievements. Troubled youth often emerge from troubled family generations, and the decades of pain passed down are difficult to dissipate.

Michael Quinn and Kathryn Q. Powers
© 2019 CYS

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